Write what you know, they said.
Don’t write for trends, they said.
Don’t over-use adjectives, they said.
Be original, they said.
Be fresh, be organic, show don’t tell, write an outline, write by the seat of your pants, take a break, write through writer’s block, put your manuscript in a drawer, take it out of the drawer, spend 1/3 as much time editing a manuscript as you did writing it, get an agent, self-publish, go to conferences, start a blog, join twitter, read Save the Cat, don’t read Save the Cat, SNOWFLAKE METHOD, don’t read your genre, read your genre, know your audience, have readers, mingle with writers, thank goodness you don’t know any writers, make sure your readers tell you the truth, edit your manuscript upside down, read your manuscript out loud, say your dialogue out loud, write 5 pages a day, write 50,000 words in a month, have a writing space, have writing rituals, kill your darlings, love your characters, kill your characters, have a beginning, middle, and end, characters trump plot, plot is more important than characters, write a trilogy, write the trilogy before you submit to an agent, outline the trilogy before you submit to an agent, don’t start writing sequels until you’ve gotten an agent, don’t have typos in your queries, NO POETRY, track your queries, know the difference between YA and Teen, YA and Teen intersect, New Adult and Teen intersect, Horror/Paranormal/Urban Fantasy are all starkly different, or the same, or not, SCREW GENRE FICTION, use vivid verbs, your narrative is too bombastic, avoid gerunds, try first-person, rewrite as third-person close, rewrite as third-person omniscient, have you had coffee yet? Are you there yet? Are you pub’d yet? Have you self-pub’d yet? Do you do author readings? Do you know so-and-so? Didn’t someone else write that? Your characters are so believable, or unbelievable, or are werewolves so they’re always talking about how fine they are with being naked all the time, write a sex scene, remove the fluids from your sex scene, shelve a project, start a new project, keep submitting because famous author X submitted 1,456,987 times before they were accepted, believe in yourself, believe in your work, believe in the universe, it’s worth it, you’re worth it, keep writing, buy a cat, keep at it, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming don’t stop it’s…
In Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life a young boy clings to his sister as their boat capsizes because she’s a witch and, obviously, “Witches can’t drown.” Later, a young woman ties a knot in a napkin, magicking a battalion of toy soldiers into coming to life to do battle with an opposing toy battalion. In Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, ghosts are locked in closets, alternate dimensions can be spider webs, and hands can become the avatars of archnemesises. There are villainous umbrellas in China Melville’s Un-Lun-Dun, a horny chatterbox of a skull in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, teeth turned to wishes in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and an inexplicably specific and delightfully irrational sport dubbed Quidditch in the world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
All of these have, on the outset, one thing in common: they’re magical. They’re evidence that the world in which they occur is not our own, that reading a book is like opening a wardrobe door; more than coats and darkness lie ahead.
But more importantly, they exemplify authenticity.
Authenticity is what happens when we, as writers, skip over detailing the mechanisms of how things happen in our stories and focus instead on what’s actually happening in our stories. It’s the difference between describing gravity and watching an apple fall; between justifying how a character can fly rather than describing the wind knotting a character’s hair, the tears forming in their eyes, the cold of a lifeless stratosphere. It’s what we, as writers, strive for when executing a scene, or piece of dialogue, or paragraph of exposition. Screw generic workshop jargon like “organic,” abandon ye olde writing platitudes of the blogosphere and the twitterverse. If you want to be a good writer, you simply have to mark those passages that make you stop and question if what’s happening can actually happen, and then work those passages so you don’t stop, so you would rather keep reading to find out what happens next.
We believe Diana Wynne Jones’s magical world because the rules of the world evince themselves. There isn’t a pause to say, “There are witches, and witches can’t drown because…,” etc. No, Jones skips to the good stuff: “Witches can’t drown, therefor, if I want to avoid drowning, I should grab a witch.” The setup is abolished for the benefit of the story; by treating the reader as if we already know something (there are witches) the writer can skip pounds and pages of purple prose spent trying to justify how what is happening can happen. The reader can do what they really want to do: get on with reading the story already.
It’s this abandonment of “how” that makes Jones such a wonderful author—we don’t, in her world, suffer through the tired methods of magicking via tapping leylines or focusing chi or aligning mind-horizons or praying to gods or wand-waving while stuttering Latin or what-have-you. We skip the how to get to the what, because the what is more interesting than the how. What moves. How stops and scratches its head. I don’t care how tying a knot in a napkin gives toy soldiers agency, the fact that it’s happening is fascinating.
Authenticity is a fragile thing, however, and that garrulous paragraph at the beginning of this essay represents a handful of the platitudes and methods people will try to protect authenticity. By themselves—absence story and context—these phrases seem like fine sound bites. “Show, don’t tell,” is a favorite of many workshop professors.
But their value plummets when applied to actual story.
For example, much has been said in recent years about keeping a story “organic.” The term when applied to storytelling refers to making sure not to disrupt how a narrative is flowing; progressing from A to C should involve, even peripherally, a B. This kind of linearity may function in some novels, but it’s not organic at all; rather, it’s like trying to ballroom dance in a suit jacket that’s a size too small. Gestures become crimped, aligned with how the story is being told, rather than where the story is going. The writer, rather than looking ahead to the next scene, becomes fixated on how exactly they wrote the previous scene, and the one before that, and the one before that. This is an exhaustive way to ensure nothing interesting happens as you write.
Here are the basic ways in which writers obstruct authenticity:
1. Unbelievable dialogue. Dialogue is often the most difficult thing to write, mainly because the narrative most writers employ is a moderately-paced speaking voice that doesn’t interact with another voice, and dialogue shifts the voice away from the narrator to one or more characters. Dialogue that is too similar to the narrative is boring; dialogue that diverts too far from the narrative appears out of place. Additionally, dialogue that is too linear comes across as false. Humans are wonderfully non-linear in conversation: it is much more likely that someone will enthusiastically say, “I just had a sandwich!” when someone asks them, “How are you?” than it is they will say, “Fine, how are you?”
2. Purple prose. Focusing on describing a room, or a person, or a field is a method of slowing the narrative down. It augments the importance of a scene, and should be used sparingly as a result. However, many younger writers will unspool detail after detail for each character and each scene, as if the baroque-inspired wallpaper’s jarring dissonance with the floral arrangement on the windowsill possessed a metonymic importance the narrator could not possibly overlook. (Humbug.) Oftentimes, purple prose is a way for weaker writers to hide their weaker craft—maybe the worst question a reader can pose to a novel or writer is, “Why is this important?” Because, too often, it isn’t.
3. Too many characters. Over populating a novel is another way of creating purple prose. Note here that I do not mean scene-based characters, such as the barista at a coffee shop or the quartermaster on a ship. But having a multitude of protagonists that are all vested in the same plotline is distracting, particularly when readers are unsure who to cheer for or against. There are exceptions to this rule, such as Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude or G.R.R. Martin’s Sword of Fire and Ice series; however in both, albeit in different ways, the writers compartmentalize the characters to different sections—Marquez by the years, and Martin by the narrators/chapters. So in having well-populated novels, these two writers (at the height of their craft, I will add) have very strict methods of separating plotlines, subplots, and narrative focus.
4. Too much world-building, not enough world. This refers to my earlier discussion about Jones’s Chrestomancy universe. Rather than focusing on how magic is done, she simply gives us magic. When one wants cake you give them cake, not a recipe. The other side of this is the importance of allowing the readers to relate to their characters. Jones, for example, gives us a range of tender and bizarre moments that employ the fantasy rules of the world in a very humanistic fashion—for example, the protagonist is saddened when people look at him funny for being the brother of a witch, and is disappointed when gingerbread men cookies are listless instead of quick, or agitated when the ingredients for his sister’s spell begin smelling because she’s hiding them in her hat and they’re spoiling in the afternoon heat. Fantasy is fused with story, motive, and plot; it’s well and beyond simple spectacle.
5. Time. A book is a self-contained moment delivering a series of moments. The simple gesture of turning the page suggests time, as does the length of a paragraph, or the varying distances between the first capital letter of a sentence and its final period. In fact, there is little so precious to a book as the time it covers and the time it takes to read it—by virtue of there being an ending, the time represented by a book is automatically finite, contained. Much of writing is an act of balancing information and time—too much information bogs down a narrative, lengthens to days what should only take minutes to read. Too little information, staccato sentences, and curt dialogue speeds up time, allowing the reader to cover weeks of information in half an hour. And while there is a definite amount of subjectivity to reading—how quickly one reads, what distractions are at hand, linguistic familiarity, etc.—a vacillating sense of pacing, structure, and timeline is irritatingly erratic, and forces the reader to review the text solely in how it is printed on the page and not by the images it delivers to our imagination. This is to say, while rigid consistency can be banal and droll, inconsistency is quickly tiresome and easy to put down. There must be methods of pacing time in writing, of controlling how quickly or how slowly it unspools.
Of course, authenticity is mostly obstructed by bad writing. Clichés, run-on sentences, confusing imagery, tagless dialogue, ramblings, non-sequiturs, and grammatical errors are just a few culprits in bad writing, and there’s no amount of writing advice that can rid you of these without regular, critical review of your own work. It is a strange distinction in writing advice that few writers tell you what doesn’t work and instead choose to focus on rehashing the same platitudes that compose what does work, a behavior that seems derivative of particularly tone-deaf Self Help books. It is entirely possible to be beholden to the platitudes of writing advice and still create an unreadable book, just like it is possible to have a well-written book that is unremarkable. This is yet another reason why Jones’s books are so pleasant to read: the narrative style is simple but flawless, the images sharp and correct, and it is through this impeccable language that Jones can convince us a fiddle can be turned into an ill-tempered cat, a book of matches can house several lives, gardens can evade you even as you step toward them.